Cowpens National Battleground
The winter of 1780/81 was a precarious time for both sides in the American Revolution.
During a successful spring and summer, British troops retook Charleston, and forces under the command of General Charles Cornwallis fanned out across the state fortifying strategic towns as they marched.
After the humiliating defeat of Horatio Gates at Camden, it looked like South Carolina was firmly in the hands of the British. Lord Cornwallis was ready to make his move and pacify North Carolina. But as summer gave way to fall, the unthinkable happened. A ragtag group of farmers and frontiersmen handed the British Army its first major defeat of the Southern Campaign at Kings Mountain.
That defeat forced General Cornwallis to pull his main army out of Charlotte favoring a more defensible position in Winnsboro, SC in order to take stock of his situation. Patrick Ferguson was lost as well as the western flank of his army, but at the same time the Patriots were in disarray.
The Patriot militia that was so successful at Kings Mountain was already falling apart. Most of the Overmountain Men had joined the war with one goal in mind – defeat Patrick Ferguson and end the treat he posed to their homes. With that accomplished, they were making their ways back to the homes they swore to protect.
The bulk of the regular Continental forces in the south had been either killed or captured in the defeat at Camden. Their leader, Horatio Gates, had humiliated himself by retreating from battle while his men continued to fight. While still technically in command, he had no army to lead.
The shorter days of winter brought with them much uncertainty. At this point, the War for American Independence could go either way. The events of the next few weeks and the decisions by two military men from dramatically different backgrounds would decide the fledgling nations fate.
General Daniel Morgan – American
Born the fifth of seven children to Welsh immigrants in New Jersey, Daniel Morgan like many young men at the time grew up with a rebellious streak. Without any formal education and after a fight with his father, he left home at the age of 17. Spending a few uneventful years in Pennsylvania, he later moved south to settle in the Virginia frontier where he married and started raising his family.
After being taught to read by his his wife Abigail, he quickly built up a thriving teamster business. His business was so successful that he was chosen as a civilian teamster supplying the British Army during the French and Indian War.
Always the hothead, Morgan found himself in conflict with members of the British Officer Class more than once. One of these officers saw fit to strike Morgan with the flat of his sword. As would happen with a young Andrew Jackson some years later, that moment solidified Daniel Morgan’s disdain for the British and he carry it for the rest of his life.
Daniel Morgan in the American Revolution
After the French and Indian War he continued to prosper. Soon Morgan owned a small plantation along with 10 slaves, and was a respected member of the community. When the American Revolution started and the call for troops to defend Boston went out, local Patriots choose Morgan to raise a company of men and march north.
Traveling 600 miles in only 21 days, Morgan’s recruits proved to be excellent with a rifle, making a name for themselves as sharpshooters. Many British officers lost their lives to these men from what they thought were safe distances. The use of sharpshooters is something we would see from Morgan again and again.
After Boston, Morgan served as a captain under Benedict Arnold during the invasion of Canada. Arnold was wounded early on in the Battle of Quebec. Morgan took command and fought his way into the city. Unfortunately, a second force attacking Quebec led by Richard Montgomery was defeated, and Morgan soon found himself outnumbered and surrounded.
For the next two years he was held as a POW until his release could be secured in January 1777. Upon his return to the Continental Army, Morgan was promoted to Colonel and given command of the 11th Virginia Regiment. It was in this capacity that he first served under General Horatio Gates at Saratoga. Afterward he was assigned the task of raiding and disrupting British supply lines in the northeast.
Despite his combat experience, Daniel Morgan was repeatedly passed over for promotion to brigadier general. He watched as men were promoted not for their experience and ability, but because of their connections in Congress. Never being one to waste time on trivial matters, Morgan had prioritized fighting over cultivating a relationship with politicians. Now with his prospects for promotion dim and an aching body from years of combat, he resigned form the Continental Army on June 30, 1779.
When General Horatio Gates took over the Southern Command a year later, he turned to his old subordinate Daniel Morgan to join him in the Carolinas. Initially declining to return to the war, Morgan changed his mind after Gates disastrous defeat at Camden. Morgan officially reported for duty on Oct 2 at Hillsborough, NC. In one of Gates’ final official acts, he promoted Daniel Morgan to brigadier general.
Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton – British
Unlike Daniel Morgan, Banastre Tarleton was born into a prosperous family of slave traders and ship owners. The third of seven children, he received a classical education ultimately attending Oxford University. Military service was not something he considered until after his father’s death in 1773. Within a year, the young Tarleton managed to squander almost his entire inheritance on gambling and womanizing.
By 1775 he scraped together enough money to buy a commission in the 1st Dragoon Guards and seemingly found himself. Though not previously trained in military science, he proved to be a natural leader, rising through the ranks on merit without having to purchase further commissions. Eventually rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and being given command of the British Legion – a loyalist force of both cavalry and infantry first raised in New York by Sir Henry Clinton.
When the British strategy shifted to the southern colonies in 1780, Tarleton sailed south along with Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis. Distinguishing himself during the siege of Charleston, he soon, however, became the target of Patriot fear and hatred after Buford’s Massacre. His name would go on to be used as a Patriot rallying cry in battles to come. His reputation, however, would serve him well after Cornwallis tasked with intimidating the countryside in hopes of finally bringing the rebellious South Carolina back to the Crown.
Feeling that Cornwallis was too lenient with the enemy, Tarleton took to this new task with a passion. His Legion ran roughshod throughout the backcountry destroying the property of anyone suspected of supporting the rebellion. His reputation only grew. By the time he faced Morgan at Cowpens, Tarleton was viewed as ruthless, brutal, and overly aggressive.
The Road to Cowpens
On October 14, 1780, just one week after the militia victory at Kings Mountain, George Washington chose Nathanael Greene to command the Southern Department of the Continental Army replacing Horatio Gates. When Greene took command that December, he inherited an army in disarray that saw its greatest success after being abandoned by its general. Among his first dilemmas was what to do about Daniel Morgan.
Nathanael Greene choose the unconventional and risky strategy of dividing his army sending Morgan west of the Catawba River. Cornwallis saw this as a sign of weakness in a new commander and on 2nd January 1780, he let slip Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton with orders to track down and destroy Morgan’s force.
Initial reports indicated that Morgan planned to attack the garrison at Ninety-Six. Upon arrival, Tarleton realized the reports were false. But on January 12, he received the information he had been waiting for. Morgan’s army was near Grindal Shoals on the Pacolet River, and the chase was on. By January 16th, Morgan had chosen the spot where he would make his stand.
Hannah’s Cowpens was the staging ground for the attack on Kings Mountain. Some of those same soldiers were in Morgans army, so they knew the landscape and its geography. It was also a well known landmark for Patriots living in the area, so Morgan put out the call for militia units to converge at Cowpens to help take down Bloody Tarleton.
Morgan choose a spot near the crest of a hill along the Green River Road. Very few trees dotted the landscape, and grazing cattle kept the area clear of undergrowth. The open field meant Morgan could see movement at a full 500 yards but the area behind the hill would be hidden from his enemy.
Daniel Morgan’s Plan
Morgan’s plan relied on the aggressive and impetuous nature that had served Tarleton so well up to this point. The Patriots would be set up in three lines along two low hills on the open battlefield in hopes that Tarleton see them and attack immediately.
The first line was made up of expert marksmen the likes of which Morgan relied on in previous battles. They were to initiate combat by firing a volley targeting as many British officers as possible. After taking their shot, they were ordered to pull back and reform in the rear out of sight of the British. Tarleton would think they were in full retreat and be drawn into the trap.
The second line was made up of mostly untested militia. Morgan only asked these men to fire two volleys – also concentrating on officers and then pull back reforming in the rear. Seeing the militia run like they did at Camden would encourage Tarleton, now sensing victory close at hand, to push on hastily without appraising the situation or seeking a better plan.
The third and final line was made up of Morgan’s best troops and was positioned at the crest of the hill behind which the previous two lines would reform. Made up of regulars from Brooklyn, Maryland, and Delaware as well as experienced militiamen from Georgia and Virginia, they could be relied upon to stand and fight against the Legion. After a short time they too were ordered to break off and withdraw a short distance.
By this time, the British Legion would believe the Patriots to be in full retreat and not notice there own losses and vulnerability. The initial lines having targeted the British Officer Corps would had weakened the command structure of the British Legion to a point where it would be hard for Tarleton to control his forces. With any luck, they wouldn’t even notice the Dragoons that had been in hiding race onto the field and flank the British.
The Battle of Cowpens
The Night Before The Battle
Having chosen where to make his stand and formulated his plan, Morgan and his men camped at the site of the battle. They had provisions, rest, and Daniel Morgan himself went through the camp encouraging his men and preparing them for the fight to come.
The British had a different experience. Tarleton started his final march at 2 AM on January 17 1781 in an attempt to finally overtake Morgan. He had been pushing his army hard and by the time they arrived at Cowpens, his men were suffering from too little food and even less sleep.
Sunrise Along the Green River Road
The British Legion caught sight of Morgan just before sunrise. Scouts had reported that the Broad River at Morgan’s back was at flood stage cutting off his retreat. The rebels were caught between the most feared troops in the Carolinas and a flooded river. Banastre Tarleton’s already high confidence was bolstered.
Sensing a decisive victory in his grasp, he hastily deployed his men along the Green River Road. He didn’t waste time surveying the situation or the battlefield. He didn’t waste time waiting for his artillery to arrive and set up. He didn’t waste time formulating a strategy. His only plan was attack now and let his cavalry chase down retreating Americans. Tarleton immediately ordered a dragoon charge.
Morgan’s plan, having taken advantage of Tarleton’s aggressive and reckless nature, proceed better than he had imagined. His first line opened fire on the dragoons shooting 15 before turning and running. Seeing the first line run, Tarleton quickly ordered an infantry charge even before his reserve forces had made it out of the woods and entered formation.
The militiamen in the second line fired their two volleys and pulled back just as the first line had. Tarleton ordered a group of British Dragoons to chase down the fleeing militia. All could have been lost. But a group of Patriot Cavalry under the command of William Washington came out of hiding to the militia’s rescue, overwhelming the British Dragoons and inflicting heavy casualties.
The exhausted British now faced the final line of Morgan’s men: Continental Regulars from Maryland and Delaware flanked by hardened Virginia militia on the right. The 71st Highland Regiment moved to attack the Virginia Militia thereby flanking the American position. The order was given for the Virginians to turn and engage the Highlanders, but in the confusion of battle, that order was misunderstood. The veteran militia began to withdraw.
Seeing this, the British thought a rout was at hand and charged into the main Patriot line. But the British were exhausted, and having lost so many officers to the first two lines, their formations broke and their charge was little more than a chaotic melee.
Suddenly, Morgan seeing the withdrawing Virginians, ordered an about face. They turned and fired into the British forces at about thirty yards. As the militia fixed bayonets to charge, British moral quickly faded and men began dropping their weapons in surrender or running the other way.
William Washington and his cavalry moved to the British right flank while the first two lines of militia that had “retreated” reappeared from behind the hill to flank the British to the left. Meeting in the middle, the two forces had the British completely surrounded.
Although his troops were in tatters, Banastre Tarleton was not ready to admit defeat. The only unit he had left was his British Legion Cavalry. But they refused his order to charge, abandoning the fight and their commanding officer. By 8:00 in the morning, the battle was over.
Aftermath of the Battle of Cowpens
Along with the Patriot victory at Kings Mountain, the Battle of Cowpens marked a turning point in the American Revolution. Up until this point the British Legion had run roughshod over any opposition in the South. But with this victory, Patriot moral was boosted and Loyalists demoralized.
The loss was so great that Cornwallis abandoned South Carolina completely. In a desperate attempt to defeat Nathanael Greene, he destroyed most of his provisions so that his army could move faster and chased Greene into North Carolina. Greene led Cornwallis further and further from his supply lines, forcing the British to scavenge the countryside for what meager provisions they could find.
His troops were exhausted from the chase and suffering from malnutrition by the time Cornwallis met Green’s army at Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781. Winning that battle at the cost of a quarter of his army convinced Cornwallis to leave the Carolinas for good.
While the British Army moved to coast, eventually to turn north towards Yorktown, VA where ultimate defeated awaited them, Nathanael Greene turned his attention back to South Carolina. Knowing that an armistice was soon to be had, his goal was to remove the British from as many of their entrenched positions as he could beforehand.
Visiting Cowpens National Battleground
Cowpens National Battlefield Site has grown from less than 3 acres to over 800 since it was established on March 4 1929. The main battle site consists of 175 acres and makes up the “historical core” of the park. Since the 1970’s there’s been a concerted effort to restore the landscape to what it was like at the time of the battle. The rest of the acreage is preserved as a natural area.
The visitor center is located next to the United States Monument erected by the War Department in 1932. The granite monument stands 32 feet high with inscriptions on the north and south faces and commemorative plaques on the east and west.
Inside the visitor center there is a small museum along with a short film and a map room that tells the story of the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. Rangers are on hand during park hours to answer any questions you might have.
The battleground trail starts behind the visitor center. The main loop is just over a mile, and while it starts off paved, it turns to gravel along the historic Green River Road.
Green River Road
An important and well known road at the time, running from the Pacolet River in South Carolina to the Green River in North Carolina eventually ending at the Buncombe Turnpike. During the Battle of Cowpens, both armies fought along the road. Today this restored and preserved section of the Green River Road marks the heart of Cowpens Battleground.
But the Green River Road played an important part in the Battle of Kings Mountain as a well. The night before the battle, on October 6, 1780, Cowpens was the staging ground for the assault on Patrick Ferguson and his men. In 1980, this part of the Green River Rd was designated one of the original sections of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail commemorating the Overmountain Men’s 330 mile march to Kings Mountain.
Washington Light Infantry Monument
Established in 1807 and named after George Washington, the Washington Light Infantry was one of many militia groups formed throughout the new nation as tensions between the US and Britain remained high and many feared another war.
Although British forces never made it to South Carolina during the War of 1812, the Washington Light Infantry saw combat in Florida during the Seminole Wars, the Mexican–American War, the Civil War, as well as being sent overseas during World War I. They were later incorporated into the South Carolina National Guard.
Although the Washington Light Infantry didn’t even exist at the time of the Battle of Cowpens, they do have a connection. On April 19, 1827, Colonel William Washington’s widow presented the unit with her late husbands battle flag. The same flag his cavalry flew at Cowpens. Thirty years later, in 1856 the Light Infantry erected the first monument commemorating the Patriot Victory at Cowpens.
The Washington Light Infantry Monument sits along today’s Battlefield Trail. It’s the earliest monument to the Patriot Victory at Cowpens. Although the monument has fallen victim to vandalism and souvenir hunters over the years, it still stands as a reminder of the men who fought for freedom on this field.
Robert Scruggs House
Where the Battlefield Trail loops back to the Visitor Center, the Green River Road continues on to the Robert Scruggs House. In 1781 there were no homes within two miles of the battle site, but because of its connection to the history of the area, this cabin has been kept within the historic core area of the park.
Scruggs first built a cabin on this site around 1811 and then expanded it to a full house soon after. As early as 1849, people interested in the Battle of Cowpens would stop at his home and talk with Robert Scruggs about the history of the area.
The Scruggs home soon became a landmark for those looking for the battleground to orient themselves. Because of this long association with the battle, the home has been restored to its 1830 appearance and still remains an important part of the National Park.
Loop Road Around the Battleground and Picnic Area
A 3.8 mile one way road runs around the battlefield. Parking along the loop road offers alternate access to the Battleground Trail and the Scruggs House. A picnic area sits about 1 and a half miles down the loop road and offers tables, grills, and restroom facilities. A 2 mile nature trail loop can be accessed from the picnic area.
Events At Cowpens National Battleground
Due to COVID-19 the National Park Services has been forced to scale back many events or make some entirely virtual. Be sure to check with rangers before making a special visit for any of these events.
Every Januaryon the weekend closest to the 17th, the anniversary of the battle is celebrated. Extra rangers are on duty to answer questions and reenactors offer demonstrations and set up a living history encampment.
The Night before Kings Mountain
A living history outdoor drama bringing the Overmountain Men’s march to Kings Mountain to life. Held each October to coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of Kings Mountain.
Celebration of Freedom
Usually held on the weekend closest to July 4 offering loads of family and historical activities.
Fast Facts About Cowpens National Battleground
|Type:||National Historic Site – Revolutionary War Battleground|
|Hours:||9AM – 5PM Daily|
|Location:||4001 Chesnee Hwy, Gaffney, SC 29341|
Things to do: Learn about history, picnicking, light hiking, bird watching, living history days, Annual Events